Our Great Outdoors: What Makes Here a Special Place?

Buffalo Mt from Hale Road
Image by fred1st via Flickr

The America’s Great Outdoors Initiative aims to develop a new strategy for 21st century conservation and to reconnect Americans to the outdoors. Conservation ideas and personal stories about special outdoor places are being collected from the American public. They will incorporate our ideas and stories into a report outlining a revitalized national conservation plan that benefits all Americans this fall. Here is my story. Why not send in one about your special place?

A five-acre sliver of floodplain pasture opens a ribbon of sky in steep forest, deep in this remote valley carved over the ages by two jump-across creeks that meet a hundred yards from my desk. I am not a native here in this county or on this piece of land, and this parcel of mountain slopes is not really unique for this part of the Roanoke and New River Valleys in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia. But I have a deep bond with this particular place because it is and because it is not special.

This land–a place my wife and I feel had been waiting for us all our lives to find, finally, at 49–has become special because we know it well: every tree, every moss-covered boulder and bend of the creek through every season. I have made memories cutting firewood here to warm us through hard winters. I have walked on fog-shrouded mornings in that sweet-smelling pasture among the giant hay bales that make our valley a kind of organic Stonehenge for a few days every summer.

I’ve tasted the fruit of it soils and my own garden toil, know by heart the sound of wind in winter whistling through reeds of oaks and tulip poplars on the ridges, and know where to look for the first bloodroot each spring, when to expect the first Louisiana waterthrush or scarlet tanager to call each summer. I love this space in particular because work and play, daydreams and tears, great expectations and front porch conversations with family, friends and neighbors have happened here. This, over time, has made space into a place of the heart.

But I love this place, too, in the ways that it is not special. Where our boundary ends, this country goes on, to the next and the next parcel, over more than 300 square miles of the county that are little changed in use or appearance over generations. The forest belongs to family farms, a patchwork of small woodlands, each with a kindred nature to my own small forest, that others know as well as I know my own. Cattle graze peacefully on a thousand terraced slopes and free-flowing streams run swift and clear. Our economy draws heavily from the soil, and from our Appalachian traditional musical roots, and the outstanding arts and crafts studios that visitors come here to experience.

Unlike many rural places, this land has largely held onto its former character and charm, its agrarian qualities, its pace, scale and authentic rural nature. We are pleasantly distant from the noise and hurry of interstates, rail or air traffic. Change has come slowly, and much thought is directed now toward an intentional and durable future that preserves what is precious in our shared home place so that we can continue to live the “progressive life in the slow lane.”

We have pride in all the things we have–and in all the things we don’t have–in this tapestry land-and-peoplescape that make Floyd County uniquely livable. Our homes are widely spread across the rolling, high plateau of the county, whose largest town of less than 500 boasts a single stop light. We love our own places, but we celebrate our shared natural belonging here to the larger landscape of southern mountains. Neighbors we don’t often see in our coming and going are reliably there when we need them.

It is our sense of belonging to and of responsibility for the landscapes of our lives here that make this southern Appalachian region of southwest Virginia a special space of special places. Those of us who live here understand that to carry forward its prosperity and its character will require finding a balance of sustainable economies, right-livelihood for our young people, and preservation of that which should remain unchanged so that this land-relationship will go on unbroken, so that our special spaces will be the legacy of our children’s children–nameless meadows, wetlands, woods and forests not known to many but cared for and very special for sure for those whose lives are cast on this stage.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Very nice writing about something that is clearly near and dear to your heart. I feel like I know your area from a different perspective now. Thanks.


  2. Bill,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. Everything you said about Floyd is true. How do I know? Because I grew up there in the Tuggles Gap area along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I now live in a nearby town that is hustling and bustling, and I now appreciate the quiet childhood I had.
    As they say,”there’s no place like home”.

  3. I guess my emphasis here for the American Outdoors public response opportunity is to encourage the preservation of “the land” in a broad sense and not just remnant slices and samples of the American landscape. It is people on, in and from the land that “places” it and not in attaining park or preserve status, although there is a purpose for protecting those ultra-special places to keep them part of “the commons.”

  4. Beautiful writing Fred! That relationship came through in the first sentence. You are clearly describing the place you live, not a place you visit. Would that we all loved our own place so much and demonstrated it in what we do.

  5. Beautifully written indeed. I must confess, though, that the point you were trying to make, that park and preserve status isn’t the answer for most conservation efforts, didn’t sink in for me until you spelled it out in the comments section. Maybe you could weave it in explicitly somewhere into your lovely piece of writing.